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Biden Opens Bipartisan Dialogue With Republicans on Coronavirus Relief

By Susan Milligan, Senior Politics WriterFeb. 1, 2021

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN campaigned on providing massive financial relief and vaccine distribution to help the nation recover literally and economically from the coronavirus pandemic. He also pledged to bring back bipartisanship to a deeply divided Washington.

The coming weeks will show whether he can do both – and which one he will choose.

Biden met late Monday afternoon with 10 GOP senators to talk about a COVID-19 relief plan. The meeting is notable because it is the president’s first White House invitation to a congressional delegation – and the honor is going to members of Biden’s opposing party.

But those lawmakers aren’t offering much to the president: The team has a $618 billion economic stimulus plan to propose, less than a third of the $1.9 trillion package the president wants to enact.

And while Biden is sincerely committed to a bipartisan dialogue, that doesn’t mean the drastically scaled-back GOP idea will be seriously considered, the White House said Monday.

“The president has been clear – he’s open to negotiating with both Democratic and Republican congressmen about their ideas,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday at her daily briefing. The meeting with GOP senators, she said, “is an example of doing exactly that.”

However, she cautioned, “What this meeting is not is a forum for the president to make or accept an offer.” Asked if Biden was willing to scale back his ask, Psaki said, “The risk is not that it is too big, this package. The risk is that it is too small. That remains his view.”

Biden is pushing a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan that includes direct payments to eligible Americans, relief for businesses, aid to state and local governments, funds for vaccinations and school reopenings and an extension of unemployment insurance. The plan also would establish a $15 federal minimum wage.

The GOP senators – who include some of the party’s more moderating personalities, such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah – want something much smaller. There is no minimum wage increase, an item considered most vulnerable in the president’s plan as it goes through Congress, and direct payments to Americans would be lowered from Biden’s proposal of $1,400 to a maximum of $1,000 and sent only to lower-income people.

Emerging from the meeting Monday night, the lawmakers said no agreement had been reached but that they appreciated Biden’s outreach.

“I think it was an excellent meeting” and “a frank and very useful discussion,” Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, told reporters after the two-hour meeting.

Psaki indicated that the offer from the GOP senators was nowhere near close to what Biden wants.

“While there were areas of agreement, the President also reiterated his view that Congress must respond boldly and urgently, and noted many areas which the Republican senators’ proposal does not address. He reiterated that while he is hopeful that the Rescue Plan can pass with bipartisan support, a reconciliation package is a path to achieve that end,” Psaki said in a statement.

Biden would need all 10 of th GOP senators in the meeting to pass a relief package under normal rules, which allow senators to filibuster it. Or, Democrats could attach the bill to something called “budget reconciliation,” a specific piece of financial legislation that cannot be filibustered.

In that case, the package could pass with the support of every one of the Democrats’ 50 senators, plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

The question Biden faces is this: Does he go bipartisan, earning Hill goodwill? Or does he go big – getting the package he wants while angering GOPers who don’t want to be left out of the process?

“I think he’s genuinely conflicted,” says Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who has served as a consultant and resident scholar for Democrats in the House and Senate. “He’s an institutional patriot, as far as the Senate is concerned,” and genuinely wants to bring the Senate back to the more cooperative chamber it was during Biden’s 36 years there, Baker adds.

“He would say, this is a great opportunity to save the institution of the toxic effects of polarization,” Baker says of Biden. “But the fact is the American public doesn’t care much about whether the Senate is happy, or is a good place to work,” Baker adds.

Congressional Democratic leaders clearly don’t think there’s much chance of getting the kind of big package they and Biden want unless they go it more or less alone. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York on Monday filed a joint budget resolution that allows them to use reconciliation to pass the $1.9 trillion plan if needed.

The move – made even as Biden met with Republican senators about the package – sends a strong signal that Capitol Hill Democrats, who saw Republicans hold up Democratic legislation and later push through their agenda when they had the majority, are low on patience.

“Democrats welcome the ideas and input of our Senate Republican colleagues. The only thing we cannot accept is a package that is too small or too narrow to pull our country out of this emergency. We cannot repeat the mistake of 2009,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.


Biden’s experience with bipartisanship runs both ways: While he was a senator, the chamber had heated debates but often compromised on legislation. When Biden was vice president, an effort to pass an economic stimulus plan early in President Barack Obama’s presidency resulted in zero GOP support in the House and just three Republican votes in the Senate.

The Affordable Care Act started with bipartisan discussions, and – as Obama ruefully recounts in his recent autobiography, “A Promised Land” – Republicans dangled the possibility of support to make the controversial package bipartisan. In the end, it was approved without a single GOP vote in the Senate and just one in the House.

Psaki said there are different ways to define bipartisanship, noting that there is more widespread support among the public and among both Democratic and Republicans lawmakers in the states for a relief package. A recent Pew poll found that nearly 8 in 10 Americans – and nearly two-thirds of Republicans – believe another COVID relief package is necessary.

And West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a former Democrat who switched to become a Donald Trump-supporting Republican in 2017, said Monday he is in favor of the $1.9 trillion package.

“We need to go big – just move,” Justice said on MSNBC. “We’ve got too many people hurting, the economy’s going to sputter. We’ve got to get our way out of this mess.”

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Darryl Swindle
Darryl Swindle
February 2, 2021 9:16 am 9:16 AM

1.9 trillion is a waste of taxpayers money

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